BAGHDAD – When Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki introduced what he called a national partnership government two weeks ago, he included allies and adversaries, Arabs and Kurds, Shiite Muslims and Sunnis. One group, however, was woefully underrepresented.
Only one woman was named to al-Maliki’s 42-member Cabinet, sparking an outcry in a country that once was a beacon for women’s rights in the Arab world and adding to an ongoing struggle over the identity of the new Iraq.
Whether this fledgling nation becomes a liberal democracy or an Islamist-led patriarchy might well be judged by the place it affords its women. Nearly eight years after Saddam Hussein was toppled, Iraq’s record is decidedly mixed.
Al-Maliki’s last Cabinet included four women, and since 2005 the Iraqi constitution has set aside one-quarter of legislative seats for females. Of 325 lawmakers elected in March, 82 were women, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.
Yet analysts said their political contributions so far have been limited, and activists and female lawmakers seized on their exclusion from the new Cabinet as a sign of women’s continued struggle to find a place in Iraqi public life.
“It’s a mockery,” said Hanaa Edwar, a founder of the Iraqi al-Amal Association, a leading women’s rights group. “Especially when you take into consideration that this is a retreat from the previous Cabinet … it’s really a slap in the face for all of us.”
The lone woman in the Cabinet, Bushra Hussein, was named a minister of state, a relatively low position without a portfolio or budget. Another female lawmaker, Vyan Dakheel, told McClatchy Newspapers that she was offered the post of minister of state for women’s affairs but turned it down because that ministry was “just a show … without real power to serve women”; it’s now being filled temporarily by a man.
After al-Maliki announced his lineup, Alaa Talabani, a female lawmaker from the northern Kurdistan region, delivered a rousing condemnation of the selection process to a packed legislative chamber.
“The Iraqi women feel today, more than any other day, that democracy in Iraq has been slaughtered by discrimination, just as it was slaughtered by sectarianism before,” Talabani said.
Al-Maliki returned to the lectern somewhat red-faced and said, “I had hoped that this Cabinet would have more women than the last.” He demanded that party leaders propose female candidates for the handful of vacancies remaining in the Cabinet.
For decades, Iraq led the region in promoting women’s rights, beginning in 1959 with the passage of an extremely progressive civil liberties law and the appointment of the first female minister in the Arab world. Even Saddam was a friend to women in the 1970s and 1980s, passing strong legislation against sexual harassment and bringing huge numbers of women into the work force as part of a drive to industrialize Iraq.
Now, however, Iraqi women are finding their hard-won freedoms limited by a society increasingly governed by religious conservatives.
The tension between the two sides bubbled over last month in Kadhmiyah, a section of northern Baghdad, where local Islamist leaders erected a provocative display outside a major Shiite shrine. It shows four mannequins wearing the hijab, the traditional Muslim head covering for women, while behind four mannequins with uncovered heads are laced with burns, shackled in chains and have red strands lapping at their feet to simulate a fiery afterlife.
The message to women is clear: Dress modestly, or burn in hell.